Howard F. Stein
Wynne, Lyman, Irving M. WyckofT, Juliana Day, and Stanley I. Hirsch.
1967. Pseudo-mutuality in the Family Relations of Schizophrenics, The
Psychosocial Interior of the Family (G. Handel, ed.). Aldine.
Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye: An Essay in
Indo-European and Semitic Worldview
If one bothers to read extensively in the scholarship devoted to a
given issue, one may well become discouraged both by the amount of
material to be digested and by the sobering thought that probably
everything worth saying about the subject has already been said by
someone else. Perhaps this is one reason why relatively few students
of the evil eye took the trouble to locate and examine much of the
previous scholarship. On the other hand, it is surely an exciting
challenge to try to say something new and worthwhile about a well
studied topic. Having taken the trouble to review the earlier
scholarship (and to present in this volume what I consider to be some
of the highlights of this literature), I should like to present my own
analysis of the evil eye. I have, I hope, profited from the insights
offered by other students of the subject.
The reader is cautioned against thinking that this is the final
word to be written on the subject. It is only the final word in this
volume. If the reader has learned nothing else, he or she should
realize that scholarship is a cooperative chain extending through
time with each individual scholar forging no more than one link in
that chain. Future investigators of the evil eye may choose to use this
essay or more likely this volume in general as a stepping stone to
I should like to dedicate this essay to the memory of Ernest Jones whose brilliant
application of pschoanalytic theory to the materials of folklore has served as a
continual inspiration to me over the years. I must also thank Stanley Brandes, Robert
Coote, Osama Doumani, George Foster, Steve Gudeman, Barbara Kirshenblatt-
Gimblett, Wendy O’Flaherty, Felix Oinas, Saad Sowayan, and Tim White for
valuable references and suggestions.
* Reprinted by permission of the English Folklore Society.
construct more rigorous and more accurate analyses of the various
facets of the evil eye belief complex.
The evil eye is a fairly consistent and uniform folk belief complex
based upon the idea that an individual, male or female, has the power,
voluntarily or involuntarily, to cause harm to another individual or his
property merely by looking at or praising that person or property. The
harm may consist of illness, or even death or destruction. Typically,
the victim’s good fortune, good health, or good looks — or unguarded
comments about them — invite or provoke an attack by someone with
the evil eye. If the object attacked is animate, it may fall ill. Inanimate
objects such as buildings or rocks may crack or burst. Symptoms of
illness caused by the evil eye include loss of appetite, excessive
yawning, hiccoughs, vomiting, and fever. If the object attacked is a
cow, its milk may dry up; if a plant or a fruit tree, it may suddenly
wither and die.
""Preventive measures include wearing apotropaic amulets, making
specific hand gestures or spitting, and uttering protective verbal
formulas before of after praising or complimenting a person, espe-
cially an infant. Another technique is concealing, disguising, or even
denyin g good fortune. One may symbolically disfigure good looks, for
instance, by purposely staining the white linen of a new dress or
placing a black smudge of soot behind a child’s ear (Rodd 1 968: 1 60-
61, cf. Crooke 1968:2:6), so as not to risk attracting the attention of
the evil eye. This may be the rationale behind behavior as disparate as
the veiling common in Arab cultures, the refusal in Jewish culture to
say “good” when asked how one’s health or business is — the safe
reply is“notbad” or“no complaints” — the common tendency among
millionaires in Europe and America to insist upon dressing in rags,
and the baseball custom in the United States of not mentioning that a
pitcher has given up no hits. (The mere mention of a possible “no-
hitter” would supposedly jinx the pitcher and result in a batter’s
getting a base hit of some kind.)
In the event of a successful attack by the evil eye, there are
prescribed diagnostic and curative procedures available. One may
first need to ascertain whether or not it is a true case of the evil eye and
second, if it is, who is responsible for it. Sometimes, the agent, who
was perhaps an unwitting one, is involved in the ritual removal of the
Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye
evil eye and its ill effects from the victim. He may, for instance, be
asked to spit on the victim’s face (cf. Dodwell 1819:35-36).
Although w idespread throughout the Indo -European and Semitic
world, the evil eye belief complex is not universal. In the most recent
"cross-cultural survey Roberts found that only 36 percent of the 186
cultures in his world sample possessed the evil eye belief ( 1 976:229);
and he suggested that the belief “probably developed in the ol d worl d,
pa rtic ularly in India, the Near East , and Euro pe” (1976:234). From
this and other surveys (e.g., Andree, Seligmann), it is clear that the
evil eye appears to be largely absent in aboriginal Australia, Oceania,
native North and South America, and sub-Saharan A fric a. The few
rare reports of its occurrence in Africa, apart from the Maghreb where
it flourishes, suggest Islamic influence. In Latin America, the evil eye
was surely part of the general Spanish and Portuguese cultural legacy.
Yet within the Indo-European and Semitic world, it is difficult to think
of a more pervasive and powerful folk belief than the evil eye.
The scholarship devoted to the evil eye goes back to classical
antiquity. Many of the ancients referred to it and P luta rch (46-120
A.D.) featured it in one of the dialogues in his Table Talk (V,
Questioh'7J rr Dn those who are said to cast an evil eye.” This dialogue
begins as follows: “Once at dinner a discussion arose about people
who are said to cast a spell and to have an evil eye. While everybody
else pronounced the matter completely silly and scoffed at it, Mestrius
Florus, our host, declared that actual facts lend astonishing support to
the common belief.” Sometimes the passing references indicated
belief in the evil eye, sometimes disbelief. In his insightful homily
“Concerning Envy,” written in the fourth century, Saint Basil
remarked 44 . . . some think that envious persons bring bad luck merely
by a glance, so that healthy persons in the full flower and vigor of their
prime are made to pine away under their spell, suddenly losing all
their plumpness, which dwindles and wastes away under the gaze of
the envious, as if washed away by a destructive flood. For my part, I
reject these tales as popular fancies and old wives’ gossip” (Saint
One of the issues often discussed was whether the evil eye was a
conscious or unconscious power. The famed Arab historian Ibn
Khaldun (1332-1466) tended to consider the power of the evil eye
as deriving from an involuntary act and, for this reason, to be distin-
guished from intentionally malicious sorcery. In section 27 of chapter
6 of the Muqaddimah (1967:170-71), Ibn Khaldun commented on
the evil eye, calling it a natural gift, something that isJmjriatejyid not
acquired, not depending upon the free choice of its possessor. He
ended his discussion as follows: “Therefore it has been said: ‘A
person who kills by means of sorcery or a miraculous act must be
killed, but the person who kills with the eyes must not be killed.’ The
only reason for the distinction is that the person who kills with the eyes
did not want or intend to do so, nor could he have avoided doing so.
The application of the eye was involuntary on his part.” Ibn
Khaldun’s distinction, somewhat analogous to the modern differ-
ences between first and second degree manslaughter, is not held by all
writers on the evil eye. Some (e.g., Mackenzie 1895; Cutileiro
1971:274) suggest that some cases of the evil eye reflect an evil
disposition on the part of the person possessing the power while others
believed to have the power are “innocent of any ill design.”
During the Renaissance a number of treatises were devoted to the
evil eye. Representative are Enrique de Villena’s “Tradado del
Aojamiento” of 1422, Leonardus Vairus’s “De Fascino” of 1589,
Martinus Antonius Del Rio’s “Disquisitionum magicarum” of 1 599—
1600, Joannes Lazarus Gutierrez’s “Opusculum de Fascino” of
1653, and Joannes Christianus Frommann’s “Tractatus de Fasci-
natione” of 1675. These and subsequent surveys often contain
valuable data. For example, Nicola Valletta in his Cicalata sul
fascino volgarmente detto jettatura of 1 7 87 ended his discussion with
a series of thirteen queries, designed very much like the modem
questionnaire, about the evil eye and the jettatura, the casting of the
evil eye. Valletta’s queries were: 1) Is the evil eye stronger from a man
or from a woman? 2) Is it stronger from someone wearing a wig? 3)
Stronger from someone who wears glasses? 4) Stronger from a
pregnant woman? 5) Stronger from monks and, if so, from which
order? 6) If the evil eye does approach, after the attack, what effects
must be suffered? 7) What is the range or limit of the distance at which
the jettatura can be effective? 8) Can the power come from inanimate
objects? 9) Is the evil eye stronger from the side, from the front, or
from behind? 10) Are there gestures, voice quality, eyes, and facial
characteristics by which jettatura can be recognized? 11) What
prayers ought to be recited to protect us against the jettatura of monks?
12) What words in general ought to be said to thwart or escape the
jettatura? 13) ^hat power then have the horiis and other things?
(Valletta 1787: 15^.WalleTta~tfien asked anyone who had had experi-
Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye
ence with the evil eye to get in touch with him and added that he would
be happy to pay for any information furnished.
The steady flow of treatises continued in the nineteenth century.
Italian scholars in particular were intrigued with a phenomenon that
flourished unabated in their country. Typical are Giovanni Leonardo
Marugj’s Capricci sulla jettatura in 1815, and Michele Arditi’s//
fascino, e Vamuleto contro del fascino pressogli antichi of 1 825, and
Andrea de Jorio’s La Mimica degli Antichi of 1832, which was
especially concerned with the traditional gestures used to avert the
Modem scholarship on the evil eye may be truly said to have
begun with Otto Jahn’s pioneering essay, “Uberden Aberglauben des
bosen Blicks bei den Altem,” which appeared in 1855. It, like so
many of the early treatises, concentrated upon ancient Greek and
Roman examples of the evil eye, but it differed in its honest and
erudite consideration of all facets of the evil eye complex, including
the obviously phallic character o f aq many of t he apotropaic amulets.
By the end of the nineteenth century, numerous essays had been
written on the evil eye, though most of them were limited to
descriptive reports from one particular area. Among the more general
surveys of the subject was Jul es Tuc hmann’s remarkably detailed
series of articles on “ La F ascination,” wKicE began to appear in the
French folklore journal Melusine in 1884 and continued inter-
mittently until 1901 . Tuchmann’s massive and impressive collection of
citations on the evil eye drawn from a huge variety of sources in many
languages (Gaidoz 1912) may well have been the inspiration for
folklorist Arnold van Gennep’s delightful parody of the doctoral
dissertation writer who tried but failed to write the definitive work on
the evil eye (van Gennep 1967:32-36). A better-known nineteenth-
century survey work is Frederick Thomas Elworthy’s The Evil Eye,
first published in 1895.
The next major effort, perhaps the most ambitious of all, was the
encyclopedic two -vo lume work b v oculist S. Seliemann . Der Bose
Blick und Verwandtesfp uBIished in 1910. This, or the 1922 version
Die Zauberkraft des Auges und des Berufen, remains probably the
best single source of information on the subject, at least in terms of
sheer quantity of ethnographic data. Other landmark studies of the
evil eye in the twentieth century include Westermarc k’s ex tensive
consideration of the evil eye in Morocco (1926f3l4^7 8) and~Karl
MelserPlTttvbrcxffi^ 1952) in the Rheinisches
262 Alan Dundes
Jahrbuch fur Volkskunde, the first covering the evil eye in the
ancient and early Christian eras and the second treating the medieval
and modern periods. Also worthy of mention are oculist Edward S.
Gifford’s The Evil Eye : Studies in the Folklore of Vision (1958),
classicist Waldemar Deonna’s marvelously learned and b rilliant Le
Symbolisme de UOeil, posthumously published in 1 965, psychiatrist
Joost A. M. Meerloo r s Intuition and the Evil Eye: The Natural
History of Superstition (1971), and a collection of anthropological
essays on the evil eye, The Evil Eye, edited by Clarence Maloney
(1976). This latter group of fifteen essays consists primarily of
ethnographic description and makes little reference to the voluminous
literature devoted to the evil eye in classics, folklore, and psychiatry.
It does, however, include a long, important paper by John M. Roberts,
“Belief in the Evil Eye in World Perspective,” which carefully
canvasses 186 diverse cultures to see if the evil eye occurs and, if so,
with what other cultural variables it might meaningfully be statis-
tically correlated. Still another comprehensive study is Thomas
Hauschild’s dissertation Der Bose Blick: Indeengeschichtliche und
Sozialpsychologische Untersuchungen (1979).
The works mentioned thus far are essentially overviews of the evil
eye belief complex but it should be noted that there are a number of
valuable books and monographs on the evil eye in a given culture.
Among the best of these are investigations in Scotland, R.C.
Maclagan’s Evil Eye in the Western Highlands (1902); in Spain,
Raphael Salillas’s La Fascinacion en Espana (1905); in Finland,
Toivo Vuorela’s Der Bose Blick im Lichte der Finnischen Uberlie-
ferung (1967); and in Sardinia, Clara Gallin i’s Dono e l yl al&eehio
(1973). When one adds to these'JRe^itefaliy dozens on dozens of
notes and articles that discuss the evil eye either en passant or in some
depth, it is clear that one has an unmanageable number of sources
available to consult for relevant information.
Despite the enormous bibliographic bulk of the evil eye scholar-
ship, it is not unfair to say that there have been few attempts to explain
the evil eye belief complex in terms o f a hoiis.tIclhteirated theory. By
far the majority of the discussions of the evil eye consist solely of
anecdotal reportings of various incidents. Anthropologist Hocart
summed up the situation aptly when he said (1938: 156): “There is a
considerable literature about the evil eye, but it does little more than
a dd ins tances to instances.” Unfortunately, the situation has not
Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye
changed; and as Spooner puts it (1976:281): “Permutations of
practice do not appear to lead to a satisfactory formulation of theory.”
Formulations of theories of the evil eye do exist. Recent specula-
tions about the possible origin and significance of the evil eye have
included the suggestion that it is related to gaze behavior perhaps
involving gaze aversion, common in many animal species (Coss
1 974). With regard to gaze behavior, Erikson proposes ( 1 977:50, 58)
that an infant experiences the unresponsive eye of an adult as a
rejecting, hostile environment or “Other” (as opposed to self). Thus,
according to Erikson, “the unresponsive eye becomes an evil one.” It
has also been claimed that the evil eye is an ancient type of hypnotic
phenomenon (MacHovee 1976). But probably the most widely
accepted theory of the evil eye contends that it is based upon envy. In
his celebrated Folkways, first published in 1906, Sumner argued that
the evil eye depended upon primitive demonism and envy. According
to Sumner (1960:434), “It is assumed that demons envy human
success and prosperity and so inflict loss and harm on the successful.”
There is no question that envy is somehow closely related to the
evi l eye . This is clear in the earliest Near Eastern texts we have. The
wor d envy i s etymologically derived from the Latin inyidia , which in
turn comes from in videre, thus ultimately from “to see” or “seeing”
as Cicero first observed(El worthy 1958:7; cf. Odelstierna 1949:72,
n. 1 .). To see something is to want it, per haps . A common reaction to
seeing a desirable object is to praiseTt, to admire it. An expression of
admiration or praise is understood to imply at least a tinge of envy.
Envy can accordingly be expressed either by eve or b xmouthior by
botfi): Schoeck considers the evifeye to be a universal expression of
malevolent envy (1955), but Spooner has criticized the envy theory,
noting( 1 976:283) that“although it is perfectly valid and necessary at
one stage of analysis, the anthropologist should attempt to build
models at a higher stage of abstraction.” Spooner might also have
realized that no theory can be persuasive unless or until it enables one
to explain the particulars of a given custom or segment of human
behavior. How doe s the notiog jofijeayy e xplain , for example, the
specific details of fruit trees with ering, the common symptom of
yawning, or the various gestures, such as spitting, e mployed to ward
off tfuTevil eye. Spooner does ask why, since envy in some form is
probably universal, it should give rise to the evil eye in some societies
but not in others (1976:283). One can only conclude that whereas
env^ is surely a component of the overall evil eye complex, it is not
sufficient in and of itself to explain the complex in all its concrete
The same difficulties inhere in suggestions that the evil eye
complex provides an outlet for the expression of aggression, or that it
acts as an agent of social control. The question that must be addressed
.does? Why are very young children and infants e speciaTlysusceptlble
to tKe effects of the evil eye? Or, why is the butterfat content of milk in
a chum magically removed?
Psychoanalytic interpretations of the evil eye have also been
partial. Because many of the ^potropaic amulets and gestures have
unmistakable phallic elements(V alletfa~T78 7 : 1 8-25 ; Jahn 1855;
^cfiaeTiVl?K5fWoiters 1909; Elworthy 1958:149-54; Seligmann
1910:11:188-200; Deonna 1965:180-81), it has long been obvious
that the male genitals ar e invo lved in some way with the evil eye
complex. Since phallic gestureslike the fica (Leite de Vasconcellos
1925:92) were used to ward off the evil ey e, and sinc^jnales often
touched their genitals upon seeing a priest or other individual thought
to haveTfteevil eye (Valla 1894:422n; Servadio 1936:403; n. 8) then
it is not unreasonable to assume that the evil eye threatened to make
men impotent ( Seligmann 1910:199; Servadio 1936). But if the evil
eye constituted a danger to masculinity, why was it believed that a
weaned infant who has returned to the breast would grow up to have
the evil eye, and why wa s the evil eve e specially damaging to female
animal s, such as cows? Roberts attempted a factor^haTysii^Fvano^
features associated with the evil eye in his cross-cultural survey; he
found the highest correlation with milking and da iry product ion
though he was unable to explain this linkage ( 1 976l2417"258). Of
course, psychoanalysts have also argued that the eye could be a
female symbol (Reitler 1913:160) with “the pupil representing the
vagina, the lids the labia, and the lashes the pubic hair” (Tourney and
Plazak 1 954:489). Is the eye a phallus, or is it a vagina, or i s it both (or
neither)? And how would tEis possibly relate to injury to cows and
their milk supply?
Geza RoheirtL suggests (1952:356) that the key to the whole
evil eye belief is oral jealousy and oral aggression. This would
illuminate the apparent connection with nursing children as well as
the appropriateness of the use of spitting or oral incantations to avoid
Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye
the evil eye. But in this case, it would not be so obvious why phallic
means should be equally effective. Roheim does not succeed, in my
opinion, in reconciling the oral and phallic elements in the evil eye
Freud himself, writing about the evil eye in his 1 91 9 essay on the
‘uncanny,’ considered its origin to be fear of envy, coupled with the
device of projection. “Whoever possesses something at once valuable
and fragile is afraid of the envy of others, in that he projects onto them
the envy he would have felt in their place” (1959:393). Tourney and
Plazak follow this psychiatric tack by emphasizing the eye as an organ
of aggression. They suggest (1954:491) that “with the utilization of
the projective mechanism, fear of the evil eye may represent the
manifestation of one’s own aggressive impulses attributed as being
apart from the ego and acting in turn against it. A need for punishment
because of guilt over hostility and aggression can be realized in the
suffering of a recipient from the influence of the evil eye.” Through
projection, the original would-be aggressor is spared feelings of guilt
because ‘ ‘Jiiatc..yQjjL”..or.‘‘I.en vy you” has been transformed into “Y ou
h^e?n£”jQrl‘,You,e By means of this proj ec tiv e tran sforma-
tion, the active becomes the passive, the aggressor becomes theTvTc-
firaThis may expjain,.why-the.rich^andpow erful are so often thoug ht
to have the evil e ye— popes and nobility have frequently been said to
have it. The poor envy the rich and powerful, but this envy is
transformed into the rich casting an evil eye at the poor. But this
psychiatric notion does not really explicate all the particulars of the
evil eye belief complex either.
A plausible theory of the evil eye must be able to account fo r most,
if not all, of the elements in the co mplex, including the manjjfe^yjiiale
3 nd female components. Consider the following modem Greek cure
for the evil eye, which involves the formula (Dionisopoulos-Mass
1976:46): “If it is .a woman who has cast the eye, then de stroy her
breasts . If it is ji man w ho has cast the eye, then cmsh fiisjenitals.” In
a variant (Hardie 1 923: 1 70), “If a man didKmaylns eyes fall out. If
a woman did it may her eyes fall out and In India,
we find the same alternation of male and female attributes. According
to Thurston (1907:254):
When a new house is being constructed, or a vegetable garden or
rice field are in flourishing condition, the following precautions
are taken to ward off the evil eye:
a. In buildings —
1 . A pot with black and white marks on it is suspended
2. A wooden figure of a monkey, with pendulous testes, is
3. The figure of a Malayali woman, with protuberant
breasts, is suspended.
b. In fields and gardens —
1 . A straw figure covered with a black cloth daubed with
black and white dots is placed on a long pole. If the
figure represents a male, it has pe nden t testes, and, if a
woman, welhdev^lpped breasts. Sometimes male and
female figures are placed together in an embracing
2. Pots, as described above, are placed on bamboo poles.
Since the evil eye is as d_angerous to female breasts (including cow’s
udders) as to m ale genitals, it is necessary for the magical counter-
measures to defend against both threats. The-question is: w hat
the oretical underlying principle or principles, if any, can explain the
whole range of phenomena believed to be caused by the evil ey e, fro m
the wi thering of fruit trees, to the loss of milk from cows to impot enc e
amongjnaales. The striking Similarity of eviTeye reports fromBifferent
cultures strongly suggests that whatever the rationale behind it may
be, it is likely to be cross-culturally valid .
I suggest that the evil eye belief complex depends upon a number
of inte rrelated folk ideas in Indo-European and Semitic worldview. I
should like to enumerate them briefly before discussing them in some
1 . Life depends upon liquid. From the concept of the “ water of lif e”
to seme p^.inilk, blood, bile, saliv a, and the like, tbeconsistent
principle is that liquid means life while loss of liquid means death.
“Wet and D ry ” as an oppositional pair mea ns life and death . Liquids
areTIving; drying is dying!
2. There rs~^1finiTe~lTmifed amount of good — health, wealth, etc. —
and because tharTsso^"any gainTy' onemdivIHual can only come at the
expense of another (cf. Foster 1965). If one individual possesses a
precious body fluid, semen, for instance, this automatically means
that some other individual lacks that same fluid.
3. Life entails an equilibrium model. If one has too little wealth or
health, one is poor or ill. Such individuals constitute threats to persons
Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye
with sufficient or abundant wealth and health. This notion may be in
part a projection on the part of well-to-do individuals. They think they
should be envied and so they project such wishes to the have-nots. On
the other hand, the have-nots are often envious for perfectly good
reasons of their own.
4. In symbolic terms, a pair of eyes may be equivalent to breasts or
testicles. A single ev e may be the phallus (especially the glans), the
vulva, or occasionally the anus^The ful lness of life as exemplified by
such fluids as mothef sjnilk or semen can thus be symbolizedby an.
eyeand accordingly threats to one’ s supply of such precious fluids can
appropriately be paanjfeS^ .bx„the jey& or eyes of others .
I am not claiming that any of the above folk ideas or principles are
necessarily consciously understood by members of Indo-European
and Semitic cultures. They may or may not be. What I am proposing
is that they are structural principles of thought among the peoples of
these cultures. I hope to show thaUhfiyjexplaiajiotjonLyThe.fi.yil eye
but a vast range of trad itional behavior ranging from tipping to some
Documentation for the folk idea that life is liquid is amply
provided by Richard Broxton Onians in hi s ..brilliant tour de force. The
Origins of European Thought about the Body, the Mind, the Soul,
the World, Time, and Fate, published in 1951. Onians is able to
explain one of the rationales behind crematio n. Burning the dead
e xpedites the “dry ing” process, the final removal of the liquid of life
(1951:256). He remarks on the Greek conception of life as the
gradual diminishing of liquid inside a man (195 1:215). I would add
that the metaphor probably made sense in light of what was
empirically observable in the case of fruits, among other items. Juicy
grapes could become dry raisins; plums could become prunes, etc.
With increasing age, the human face becomes wrinkled and these
inevitable wrinkles could be logically construed as signs of the same
sort of d^yiagprricfisjs that produced the wrin k l e s in rais ins an d prunes .
It should also be pointed out that this Greek conception is also a
manifestation of the notion of limited good (Foster 1965, Gouldner
1965:49-51). Man is bom with only so much life force and he is
therefore ever anxious to replenish it. Milk and jyine are, obvious
sourfi fi&pfiiauid-G 95 1 :227), noted Onian^ and he correctly observes
the content of toasts in this connection. One drinks “healths.” What
Onians failed to understand is that healths are supposedly drunk to
others, that is, accompanied by such verbal formulas as “Here’s to
voil”^‘ Here’s to vour health. ”_ or “Here’s long life t o you. ” What this
means in termTof limited good, I submit, is: “ I drink, but not at your
exgease-J am replenishing my liquid supply, but I wish no diminution
in yours.” The very fact that a drinker mentions another person’s
health before drinking implies that if he did not do so, that person’s
health might suffer. In other words, driiiidX!^ .W^ formulaic
prophylactic preamble might be deleterious to theLjat her person’s
jiealth. In an unusual volume published in 1716 entitled^ Discourse
of Drinking Healths, we find this thought articulated: “And what
strange Inchantment can there be in saying or meaning, As I drink this
Glass of Wine, So let another Man perish” (Browne 1716:19).
Levi- Strauss, in a rare instance of ethnographic fieldwork,
reports on a custom observed in lower-priced restaurants in the south
of France (1969:58-60). Each table setting includes a small bottle of
wine but etiquette demands that one does not pour the contents of the
bottle into one’s own glass. Rather the wine is poured into the glass of
an individual at a neighboring table. This individual will normally
reciprocate by pouring the contents of his bottle into the initial
pourer’s glass. Levi-Strauss explains this custom in terms of a
structural principle, namely the principle of reciprocity: “Wine
offered calls for wine returned, cordiality required cordiality.” This is
not an implausible explanation, but this custom which reflects an
attitude towards wine remarkably different from that towards food, as
Levi-Strauss himself notes, may also exemplify the special rules
governing the incorporation of liquids among Indo-European and
Semitic peoples. The notion of limit ed good — as applied to the
essential liquids of life — requires one to offer bev erages to others. If
one drinks without regard to one’s neighbors, one risks being envied
and becoming the object or victim of an evil eye. The reciprocity of
courtesy is demonstrated in a Gaelic incantation against the evil eye
reported from the island of Skye in the Hebrides. When washing in the
morning (Mackenzie 1895:39), a person may recite:
Let God bless my eye,
And my eye will bless all I see;
I will bless my neighbor
And my neighbor will bless me.
Numerous reports attest that eating in public is thought to be
especially dangerous with respect to the evil eye. Westermarck
(1904:211; cf. Gifford 1958:48-50), for example, notes that “the
Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye
danger is greatest when you eat. To take food in the presence of some
hungry looker-on is the same as to take poison; the evil — i-bas, as the
Moors call it — then enters into your body. When jyou commence
eating, everybody must either pa r take o f the meal or go away? T Tn
Egypt, Lane ( 1895:262) reports that his cook would not purchase the
fine sheep displayed in a butcher’s shop because “every beggar who
passes by envies them; one might, therefore as well eat poison as such
meat.” A report that appeared in the Russian paper Ilustriravansk
Mir in 1881 (according to Gordon 1937:306) reflects a similar belief:
“The Russian government turned over a convict sentenced to die to
the Academy of Science for the purpose of testing the powers of [the]
evil eye. The prisoner was starved for three days during which a loaf of
bread was placed in front of him of which he was unable to partake. At
the end of the third day, the bread was examined and found to contain
a poisonous substance.” Gordon ( 1 937:307) observes that while the
story proves nothing — the bread could easily have been spoiled by
being kept in a damp cell for three days, the very fact that a newspaper
could print the report shows the readiness of the public to believe in
the power of the evil eye.
One technique used in restaurants to avert the dangers of the evil
eye is to offer . o n l ook e r s some of one’s food. In Spanish restaurants ,
for example, any person waiting to be seated at a table is frequently
invited by patrons already eating to join them or share their food. This
formulaic offer is inevitably refused but the point is that the invitation
is made. Foster (1972:181) has described this very well:
In Spain and Spanish America — to this day in small country
inns — a diner greets each conceptual equal who enters the room
with “ Gusta [Usted comer]?” (“Would you care to share my
meal?”), thereby symbolically inviting the stranger (or friend) to
partake of the good fortune of the diner. The new arrival ritually
replies “Buen provecho” (“Good appetite,” i.e., may your food
agree with you), thereby reassuring the diner that he has no
reason to fear envy, and that he may eat in peace. The entrant
normally would not think of accepting the invitation, and the
courtesy appears to have the double function of acknowledging
the possible presence of envy and, at the same time, eliminating
After commenting upon the probably similar functioning of such
ritual predining formulas as the French “bon appetit,” Foster
proceeds to discuss the necessity for offering something to a waiter in
Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye
a restaurant. Since a waiter may also envy a diner, he needs to be
given something to ensureJwiL*^^ In a fascinating
brief survey of analogues to the word tip in a number of European
languages, e.g., French po urboire, German Trinkgeld, Spanish
prop ine . Po rtug uese gorgeta , Pol ish n a/mve7ETSwe^sh drincs, Fin-
nish juomarabaa, Icelandic drykkjupeningar, Russian Chaevye
[den’gi], and Croatian Napojnica, Foster concludes that the English
word tin must com e from tipple ^ whie hmeans “to drink.” (This is
obviously much more likely than the folk etymology often encoun-
tered that tip is an acronymic formation from “to insure promptness”
or tips from “to insure prompt service.”) While Foster is surely
correct in stating (1972: 181) that “a tip, clearly, is money given to a
waiter to buy off his possible envy, to equalize the relationship
between server and served,” he fails to comment on the possible
significance of the fact that t he waite r is invited to drink ( as opposed
to eat). In the light of the present argument, it i s precisely liquids
which must be offered to avert the evil eye.
The use of a liquidFribeTsoto speak, is also found in other evil eye
contexts. For example, in Scotland,
A well-informed woman, an innkeeper, said that in cases where a
person possessed of the Evil Eye admired anything belonging to
another, no injury could follow if some little present were given
to the suspected person on leaving ... In the case of churning the
small present naturally takes the form of a drink of milk to be
given to anyone suspected of the Evil Eye, and so a reciter said
that one should always, for safety’s sake, give a visitor a drink of
milk, and stated further that the beneficial effect was added to if
the one who gives it first takes a little of it herself before handing
it to the stranger (Maclagan 1902:22-123).
The suggestion that the efficacy of the “tip” is increased if one first
takes a little of the milk before offering it to the stranger is reminiscent
of one of the folk theories of the evil eye, which claims a conne ction
exists between bxeaSit-feeding p ractic es and the evil eye. One notion is
thaTarflnfant allowed to drink freely from both breasts (rather than
from just one) will grow up to have the evil eye. Another notion is that
an infant once weaned who is allowed to return to the breast will
likewise grow up to have the evil eye. Representative ethnographic
data includes the following. In India (Crooke 1968:1:2), “One, and
perhaps the most common theory of the Evil Eye is that ‘when a_child
is born, an invisible spirit is born with it; and unless the mother keepsf
one breast tied up for forty days, while she feeds the child with the
other (in which case the spirit dies of hunger), the child gr ows up with
the endowment of the Evil Eye, and whenever any person so endowed
looksat anything constantly, something will happen to it.’ ” In Greece
(Hardie 1 923 : 1 6 1 ), “It is known, however, that if a new-made mother
suckles her infant from both breasts without an interval between, herv^^^^l
glance will be baleful to the first thing on which it rests afterwards.
Again, should a mother weakly yield to the tears of her newly weaned
son and resume feeding him, he will, in later life, have the evil eye.”
(This belief could function as a socially sanctioned charter or
justification for mothers weary of breast-feeding and anxious to
finalize weaning.) Similarly, in Greece, one of the things that can
cause the evil eye is “if the baby resumes breast feeding after having
been interrupted for a few days or weeks” (Blum and Blum 1 965 : 1 86,
1970:146). Analogous informant testimonies concerning the pre-
sumed causal relationship between reversing the weaning act and the
evil eye have been reported in the Slovak-American tradition ( Stein
1974) and in Romania (Murgoci 1923:357). (The folk theory that
weaning reversal can cause the evil eye would seem to offer support to
psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s claim that the primary prototype of
envy in general is the infant’s envy of the “feeding breast” as an object
which possesses everything (milk, love) the infant desires [Klein
1957:10,29].) In all these cases, the infant is displaying what is
construed as greedy behavior. Either he wants both breasts (when one
is deemed sufficient) or he wishes to return to the breast after having
been weaned (perhaps thus depriving a younger sibling of some of the
latter’ s rightful supply of the limited good of mother’s milk). An infan t
whojglsmore milk in this way is likely to become an adult who also
attempts to get other forms of material good in this same way, that is,
at someone else’s expense. Thus he will be an adult with the evil eye, a
gre edy ind ividual who, craving more than he deserves, or needs, may
seek to take from the bounty of others. (In this context, it might be
more apt to say that tip derives not just from tipple, but ultimately
from nipple.) One wonders if the yawning symptom of victims of the
evil eye might not be reminiscent of weaning insofar as the mouth in
the act of yawning is constantly opening without obvious material
Confirmation of the importance of weaning and sibling rivalry in
the evil eye belief complex comes from a curious detail in a
remarkable legend which itself serves as a charm against the evil eye.
The text typically involves the personification of the evil eye, usually
as a female demon, perhaps a Lilith, child- stealing figure. A saint or
archangel encounters the she-demon and forces her to reveal all of her
names (through the recitation of which she may henceforth be
controlled) and to return any infants she has already carried off or
devoured (cf. Gollancz 1912; Hazard 1890-91; Naff 1965:50-1;
Montgomery 1913:259-62; Gaster 1900; Fries 1891; and Perdrizet
1922:5-31). Gaster cites a Slavonic version of the legend (1900:
139-42) in which it is the devil who steals and swallows a sixth infant
after having similarly disposed of five previous ones. The mother
Meletia dispatches her brother Saint Sisoe to recover her infants.
When he confronts the devil and demands the return of the infants, the
devil replies, “Vomit thou first the milk which thou has sucked from
thy mother’s breast.” The Saint prays to God and does so. The devil,
seeing this, regurgitates the six infants, who are safe and sound. In two
seventeenth- century Greek versions cited by Gaster, the same motif
recurs. Two saints, Sisynnios and Sisynodoros, demand that the
villain Gylo return the children of their sister Melitena. The she-
demon Gylo replies, “If you can return in the hollow of your hand the
milk which you have sucked from your mother’s breast I will return
the children of Melitena.” The saints pray and “they vomited at once
into the hollow of their hand something like their mother’s milk.”
Gylo then brings up the abducted children and reveals her other
names (Gaster 1900:143-45; cf. 147-48). If the brother’s regurgita-
tion of mother’s milk equals the restoration of infants, then one might
logically assume that swallowing mother’s milk is symbolically
equivalent to destroying infants. Since the protagonists are brother
and sister, we appear to have a case of sibling rivalry revolving around
the allocation of mother’s milk. Incidentally, the name of the
personification of the evil eye, Gylo, may, according to Perdrizet
(1922:25) who has studied the legend in some detail, be related to the
Arab ghoul , which may in turn be related to the Babylo nian g allon ,
which means “demon.” The root may possibly be related to a variety
of Indo-European words associated with greediness in drinking .
Consider Trench goulu , meaning “gluttonous,” or gueule, meaning
“ the mouth of an animal^” wit h sueulee, m eaning “ a large mouthfu l.”
In English, it may be related to such words as gullet, glut, gul p, sully,
and possibly gurgle, eobble. eorge. and eureltaUo n7'Gulch once
me ant 4 4 drunkarcF or^ToTswallow or devour greedily” while gulf once
Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye
referred to a voracious appetite (and may derive from the Greek for
bosom). To engulf means to swallow.
Water is, of course, necessary for the sustenance of life, and life
itself is empirically observed to begin in some sense with an
emergence from a flood — of amniotic fluid, perhaps providing a
human model or prototype for creation myths involving supposed
primeval waters or floods (cf. Casalis 1976). But it is the metaphorical
and symbolic quests for water that are most relevant to our considera-
tion of the evil eye. Onians explains that the idea that life is liquid and
the dead are dry accounts for the widespread conception of a “water of
life” (1951:289). The search for the water of life in fairy tales (cf.
motif E80, Water of life), which is found throughout the Indo-
European and Semitic world, as well as the common quest for the
fountain of youth (cf. motif D1 338.1 . 1 , Fountain of youth), certainly
support the notion that liquid is life. Hopkins ( 1 905:55) distinguishes
the two motifs, arguing that the “fountain of youth” comes from India
while the 44 water of life” stems from Semitic tradition. In any case, the
magic liquid can cure wounds and even bring the dead back to life. It
can also rejuvenate, making the old young again. If the passage of life
consists of the gradual diminution of finite fluids, then the only logical
way to reverse the process would be to increase one’s fluid supply.
Whether fluids were taken internally (by drinking) or externally (by
bathing, baptism, or being anointed), the life-giving or -renewing
principle is basically the same.
If increases in liquid mean health, then decreases might signify the
opposite (Onians 1951:212-14). I think it is quite possible that the
English word co mes ultimat ely from the Latin siccus , w hich
means “dry.” Th e total loss of liqui d, that is, loss of life, would mean
death. And this is why in the Indo-European and Semitic world, the
d ead are_sp e&fi£a^ thirsty .The following custom
is typical (Canaan 1929:59): “Water is not only essential for the
living but also for the dead. As in ancient days so also now the
Palestinian is accustomed to place for the dead ajar containing water;
the only difference is that we often find on the tombs a shallow or deep
cup- like cavity. Some believe that the soul of the dead visits the tomb
and expects to find water to quench its thirst; therefore they that visit
the tombs of the dead fill these cups with water.” Onians in writing of
the thirst of the dead notes (1951 :285) that in Babylonia the provision
of water to the dead fell to the deceased’s nearest kinsman. This
kinsman was known as a man’s “pourer of water.” One Babylonian
curse was: “May God deprive him of an heir and a pourer of water.”
The widespread distribution of the conception of the thirsty dead has
been amply described (cf. Bellucci 1909 and especially Deonna
Certainly the presumed thirst of the dead is a major metaphor in
ancient Egyptian funerary ritual. According to Budge ( 1 909:34), one
of the oldest of the ceremonies performed for the dead was called the
“Opening of the Mouth.” The deceased was told, “Thy mouth is the
mouth of the sucking calf on the day of its birth” (Budge 1909:60,
156, 209). Various offerings of food and libation were presented to the
deceased, most of them specifically said to come from the Eye of
Horus. “Accept the Eye of Horns, which welleth up with water, and
Horns hath given unto thee” (Budge 1909:147; cf. 117, 129, 185).
The Eye of Horus as a breast or other body part containing liquid is
understood to refresh the deceased by offering him the necessary
additional “fluid of life” to replace the fluids lost before death or
during the process of mummification (Budge 1909:46, 52).
f In the light of the centrality of li quid as a metaphor for life, it makes
I sense for envy to be expressed in liquid terms. The Have-nots envy the
' haves and desire their various liquids. Whether it is th e dead w hagnvy
i the living (as in vampires who require the blood of the living and who
i are commonly referred to as “bloodthirsty”), the old who envy th e
! young, or the barren who enyy those w ith child ren, it is th e b lood, the
I sapor vitality of youth, the materna 4.milk, or ma^liii£_sempnthatis
1. coveted. The notion of limited goo3"1neans that there is not really
t enough to go around. Thus an admiring look or statement (of praise) is
! understood as a wish for precious fluid. If the looker or declarer
| receives liquid, then it must be at the expense of the object or person
! admired. So the victim’s fruit tree withers from a loss of sap or his
j cow’s milk dries up. The point is that the most common effect of the
! evil eye is a drvins up pr ocess.
There have long beencTues revealing the desiccating nature of the
evil eye. A thirteenth- century Dominican, Thomas of Cantinpre,
claimed that if a wolf and a man meet and the wolf s ees the man first,
the man cannot speak because the rays from the wol T’.^eye~dfyu p the
spiritus of human vision, which in turn dries up the human spiritus
generally (Tourniy'ahcfPlazak 1954:481). At the beginning of the
twentieth century, twenty-three informants in Spain mentioned
Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye
seca r sc, “dryin&put,” as one of the characteristic symptoms of the
evil eye(5alillas 1 905:44). An interesting clinical parallel is provided
in a case of schizophrenia where a nurse believed a private eye (not a
detective but an actual eye) was watching her and that it had the power
to draw vital body fluids from her (Tourney and Plazak 1954:488).
One of the oldest texts extant that treats the evil eye is a Sumerian
one; it too confirms the association with water. It begins, “The eye
ad-gir, the eye a man has . . . The eye afflicting man with evil, the ad-
gir. Unto heaven it approached and the storms sent no rain.” The evil
eye even takes away water from the heavens. The Sumerian text
suggests the cure involves “Seven vases of meal- water behind the
grinding stones. With oil mix. Upon (his) face apply” (Langdon
1913:1 1-12, cf. Ebeling). One may compare this with a Neapolitan
charm from Amalfi (Williams, 1961:156), which is nearly four
thousand years later: “Eye of death, Evil Eye, I am following you with
water, oil and Jesus Christ.” The protective power of fluids including
water is apparent in many ancient texts referring to the evil eye. For
example, in the Berakoth, a book of the Babylonian Talmud, we read,
“Just as the. fishes in the sea are coverecLby water and the evileye has
no power over the”m, so the^evifeye has no power over the seed of
JosHplf’ [Simon 1948:120(20a), 340(55b)]. Onaportal plaque from
Arslan Tash in Upper Syria, a Phoenician incantation text inscribed
in an Aramaic script of the early seventh century B.C. (Caquot and
Mesnil du Buisson 1971) urges the caster of the evil eye to flee. It
begins, according to Gaster (1973, but cf. Cross 1 974:486-90) with
these words: “Charm against the demon who drains his victims.” This
suggests the antiquity of the idea that thej^ilj^^
to the b ody fluids. In modem Saudi Arabia, a person who is accused
(^ha ringfhe' ev ij eye m ay be labelled by the adjective ash-hab which
means “firey and de sic cated .” A person with the evil eye is thus one
whnj s dried _ put, in need of liquid refreshment.
Once it is understood that the evil eye belief complex depends
upon the ba lance of liq uid equ ilibrium, it becomes possible to gain
insight into various apotropaic techniques. For example, on the back
of a large number of ancient amulets used to keep the evil eye away
appears a Greek ins criptiOT'meamng ‘ ‘ I d rink,” Bonner (1950:213)
and other scholars puzzled by this inscription felt that this meaning
was inappropriate and suggested alternative translations such as “I
am hungry” or “I devour.” But if these meanings were intended, one
might ask, why should “I drink” appear so often. Bonner even went so
far as to suggest that “perhaps the ‘error 5 occurred on the first
specimen manufactured in some important workshop and was slav-
ishly copied.” The point is surely that the folk know (in some sense)
what they are doing — even if scholars do not. In the light of the present
hypothesis, “I drink” makes perfect sens&-as-theinscriptionof an anti-
e vil eye amulet.
Or consider the following detail of a contemporary Algerian
Jewish custom. Whoever removes the effects of the evil eye from
someone afflicted evidently runs some risk of having the effects
transferred to him. “Pour eviter que le ‘mauvais oeil 5 enleve au
malade ne penetre en lui l’operateur apres avoir termine absorbe un
verre d’un liquide quelconque (eau, anisette, vin, etc.) que lui offrent
les parents du malade” (Bel 1 90373’64). Clearly, the incorporation of
liquid — whether it is water or wine is immaterial — is thought to guard
against the dangerous effects of the evil eye.
Structurally speaking, the various apotropaic methods employed
to avoid or cure the evil eye ought to be isomorphic. But how is
showing a phallus or the fica isom orphic with spittin g? I would argue
tHarair these amulets or gestures signify the production of some form
of liquid. Whether the liq uid is semen or saliva, it provides proof that
the victim’s supply of life force is undfminished. Spitting is also an act
of insult and it is quite likely that spitting as a counteractant to the evil
eye represents a devaluation of the victim. In other words, a beautiful
baby whether praised or admired or not represents a potential object
of attack by an evil eye. If one spits on the baby (or asks the possessor
of the evil eye to spit on the baby), one is mitigating the praise or
admiration expressed. It is as if to say this is not a beautiful, admirable
object (and that it should not be subject to an evil eye attack). On the
other hand, spitting involves the projection of liquid for all to see.
Crombie ( 1 892:252) was quite right in remarking that saliva seemed
to contain the element of life, but he did not realize that-Sj ^iva can also
be symboli cally equivalent to se men ( cf. Onians 1 95 1 :233, n.5). The
initial consonant “cIusTer sp occurs in both sputum and sperm ,
suggesting the emission ofTIquid, but even more persuasive is the
unambiguous metaphorical evidence provided by the idi om “spitten
im^ge' ,J -tor “^pit jnd i mage” or “spi tting image”), used to refer to a
child who greatly resembles his fatlTenfcObnes 1951:63, 273). The
symbolic equivalence is also attested in jokes. Legman (1968:584)
Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye
reported the following abbreviated text collected in Scranton, Penn-
sylvania, in 1930: “Two twins are conversing in the womb. ‘W bo’s
that bald-headed guy that comes in here every night and spits in my
The important role of saliva in the evil eye belief complex is
confirmed by an interesting practice reported in Greece and Saudi
Arabia. In the Oasim district in north central Saudi Arabia, in cases
where someone is afflicted by the evil eye and it is not known who
caused the misfortune, someone representing the victim, usually a
small male child, stands in a public area, for example, outside a
mosque with a small bowl half filled with water and asks each male
passerby to spit into it. This is done so as not to embarrass anyone in
particular by accusing that person of having the evil eye. After
everyone or, at least, a good many individuals have expectorated into
the container (or made a pseudo- spitting gesture), the container is
taken to the victim who drinks half the contents and anoints his body
with the other half. In eastern Greece in the beginning of this century,
a village girl fell ill. Her mother, fearing that the cause was the evil eye,
hired a curer (female) to go to the church to collectforty spits in a glass
from people going into the church. The curer kept track of the number
of spits by counting kernels of corn. When she counted forty kernels,
she brought the glass to the victim who drank it. The victim recovered
within a few days. However aesthetically unpleasing or hygienically
unsound such a practice may be adjudged by nonmembers of the
cultures concerned, the cure certainly does exemplify the principle of
liquid intake as a counteractant tojhe evil eye.
^AsTortheMalabar cu^^ male figures with
pendulous testes and female figures with protuberant breasts used to
ward off the evil eye can also be understood as liquid-bearing
symbols. The l arge t&stes and breasts presumably repr esent an
abun dance of s emen and milk . (The overturned pot may suggest that
the abundance is so great that hoarding is not necessary.) The
symb olic equivalence nfJhr easts and eves is suggested by a variety of
data. In ancient European iconography cjj^es- .with s hort lin es
radiati ng from th e. circumference were u sed to sy mboliz e b oth e yes
^jiL^reasts^ Crawford 1957 :4 r,~4H796~~98; cf Deonna 1965:64;
Meerloo 1971:36). In contemporary German folk speech, dozens of
idioms support the fact that “Eine der merkwurdigsten Gleichsetz-
ungen im Vokabular der Sexualsprache ist Auge = Brust” (Bomeman
Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye
1971). The interchangeability of eyes and breasts is also obvious from
an examination of different versions of the folktale or legend “Present
to the Lover” ( Aame-Thompson tale type 706B). Its summary reads
“Maiden sends to her lecherous lover (brother) her eyes (hands,
breasts) which he has admired” (cf. Williamson 1932, Gonzalez
Palencia 1932). Further data come from contemporary tattooing.
“Open eyes are tattooed on American sailors’ lids or around their
nipples because the sailors believe that such tattoos will keep watch
for them when they are tired or asleep” (Parry 1933:136), a belief
probably identical to the one that accounts for the widespread Indo-
European custom of painting an eye on either side of the bows of ships
and boats (Homell 1923, 1938). But the important point here is that
the eyes are sometimes drawn around the nipples, which would
exemplify the breast-eye equation.
Similar folkloristic data suggests that testicles and eyes may be
symbolically equivalent on occasion. In Irish mythology, we find
motif J229.12, prisoners given a cjxoice between emasculatian_and
bli nding, a n alternative reminiscent of Qedipiis’ self-imgpsed^iunish-^
ment of blinding fora sexual crime. (For a discussion of blindness and
castration"' as" aflomotifs, see Uundes 1962:102.) One may note the
same allomotifs in another European narrative setting. The plot
summary of Aame-Thompson tale type 1331, The Covetous and the
Envious, is as follows: Of two envious men one is given the power of
fulfilling any wish on the condition that the other shall receive double.
He wishes that he may lose an eye. Legman (1975:61 1) reports a
version from New York City in 1936: “A Jew in heaven is told that
whatever he asks for, Hitler will get double. He asks that one of his
testicles be removed.” This kind of incontrovertible data strongly
supports the idea tha t testicles a n d eves are in some sense inter -
changeable. We can now better understand the modem Greek
fbrmuTa'cited earlier, in which it is wished that the possessor of the evil
eve suffer crushed genita ls or burst breasts , in otherwordsTtharlils^f
her vital fluids be wasted. (The wish for breasts to burst may also
imply a wish for the death of a female evil eye caster’s infant — an
event which might tend to cause the mother’s unused breasts to swell
to the bursting point.)
One detail we have not yet explained is the s ingu larity of the evil
eye, and I mean singularity in the literal sense. Why the evil eye
instead of evil eyes? In most languages the idiom for evil eye expresses
the notion of a single eye. To my knowledge, none of the previous
scholarship devoted to the evil eye has even raised this elementary but
intriguing question. Any plausible theory of the evil eye should be able
to account for it.
To better understand this facet of the evil eye belief complex, we
may profitably examine ancient Egyptian beliefs. According to Moret
(1902:40-47), all living things were created by eye and voice. Life
was an emission of fecund light from the Master of rays. Above all, it
was the sun Ra who was the primary creator, using his eye, the sun,
“Eye of Horus.” (For the sun as a heavenly eye generally, see
Weinreich 1 909.) The solar virtues of the gods were transmitted to the
pharaoh through a magical fluid called Sa . That Sa which flowed in
the veins of the pharaoh, son pf Ra, was the “liquid of Ra/’fhegold of
the^SSXrays. Sa was emitted by a process termed sotpou, a verb used
to describe the shooting forth of water, flames, and”arr6ws and the
ejaculation of semen (Moret 1902:47n.2; cf. Roheim 1972:162).
Another sourcFoflife, "Incidentally, besides the liquid of Ra, was the
milk of Isis (Moret 1902:48, n.l), which suggests that the symbolic
equivalence of semen and mil k is of c onsiderable antiquity (cf. Jones
1951b:233; Legman 1975:1 3 9f 3 67)7
The curious verb sotpou with all its nuances reminds us of the term
eja cuIq IwmSqv the actio n of the e vil eye. F rancis B aeon in 1 6 25 spoke
of the act of envy producing an “ej a cu lation” of the e^e^and many
reports of the evif eye among Greeks and Greek-Americans use the
term ejaculate in speak ing of preventatives, e.g., ejaculating the
phrase ^garllcm your eyeF’1(L5wiorr Georges 1962:70).
The eye shoots forth its rays just as the Egyptian sun, the eye of
Horus, emitted its life-force liquid, Sa. The sun’s rays, according to
Ernest Jones (1951b:303), are often regarded as “a symbol of the
phallus as well as of semen.” The phallic interpretation of the sun with
its rising perceived as a metaphorical form of erection was first
suggested more than a hundred years ago (Schwartz 1874; cf. Jones
1951b:278, 285) and it certainly puts solar mythology in anew light!
What is important in the present context is that the sun is both phallus
and eye. Noteworthy also is that jettatore, the common term in
southern Italy for the possessor of an evil eye, andejaculatian. come
from the s ame Latin root... -
In 1 9 KTEmest Jdiies commented, in the course of discussing the
power of the eye in hypnotism, on various beliefs in magical fluids
including so-called magnetic fluid. (In this connection it is of interest
that a report of the evil eye mechanism in Corsica [Rousseau 1 976:6]
suggests that the force involved may be a kind of fluid, a fluid that is
released after an unguarded compliment or expression of admiration.)
Jones noted (1910:239) that the magnetic fluid was principally
emitted from the hypnotist’s eye; and he suggested that such a belief in
the influence of the human eye, for good or ill, had its origin in the
notion that the eye and its glance were symbolically regarded as the
expression of the male organ and its function. F reud too spoke of “the
substitutive relation between the eye and the male member which is
seen to exist in dreams and myths and phantasies” ( 1 959:383-84). In
the case of the phallus, one is tempted to observe, the glance might
come from the glans. If one looks at the glans of a penis, it is not
impossible to imagine it as an eye, the urinary meatus serving as a
What is startling about this notion is that iiy^nogiaphic represen-
tations of the phallu s with an eye do occur. A number of scholarsTiavtr
noted the exis'tencroniTel? ^a7/^I"Q^T (2m^ (Seligmann 1910:2:28;
Servadio 1936:405; Perdrizet 1922:31; Deonna 1965:70), but none
have theorized about its significance. The idea of aph^usjwitharLgye
is no_ strange r than contemporary risque puns on cockeye (Legman
1968:241). Even more germane is some striking evidence from
Arabic folk speech. In the fifteenth-century Arabic classic The
Perfumed Garden (Nefzawi 1963:166, 176), epithets for a man’s
sexual parts include el aaouar, “the one-e yed ,” and abou aine, “ he
with one eve. ” The Arabic word for eye is similar to the H ebrew wor d
a vi p, which means both “e ye” and “ well ” (Gifford 1958:81). One of
the biblical verses used in phylacteries ward off the evil eye was
Genesis 49:22: “Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a
well,” because of the understood play on words. Joseph andi hte
de scendants w ere fruitful even tho u gh ne x t to a well (= eye) The
strength of the liquid metaphor even in the twentieth century is
perhaps signalled by the fact that “ Maiyeh , water, in colloquial
Arabic is also used as the name of male semen, the life medium”
The folk notion of the penis as the one-eyed also occurs in
Walloon folklore. According to an anonymous report in Kryptadia
(1902:24), a traditional epithet for the phallus is li bwegne, a dialect
form of le borgne, which means “one-eyed.” We are told that this
Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye
remarkable appellation can be understood by the “ ressembl ance
vague que la gland et ses levres presentent_ avec un . oeil._et7s frs
paupieres.” However, the resemblance cannot be all that vague if we
fmdlhe same one-eye idiom in other cultures! The tradition of the
Walloon metaphor is confirmed by the reporting of an additional
illustration: “sain-ni-s-bwegne,” which is explicated as “saigner
son borgne, c’est-a-dire pisser.” If bleeding or, more figuratively,
draining the one-eye refers to urination, then this would certainly
support the idea that an eye containing liquid might represent a
We need not go so far afield as Arabic and Walloon folklore for
the idea that a third eye, like a third leg, c an be a circumlocution for
th e ph allus. The fact thatthelphallus is the third eye or leg would be in
accord with the phallicism of the number three in Indo-European
tradition, with the phallus cum testicu lis perceive d as a triform clus ter
(Dundes 1968:420, n.l). The phallus as the one-eyed has been
reported in American folklore. One of the “unprintable” folk beliefs
from the Ozarks collected by Vance Randolph in 1946 has been
published by G. Legman. It concerns the custom of the so-called
dumb supper by means of which young women learn the identity of
their future husbands. In most versions of the custom, the girls prepare
a supper in total silence and then await the arrival of the first male
visitor, who is supposedly a spouse- to-be. In Randolph’s account of a
prank played around the turn of the century, a “local ruffian”
overhears the plans of two young girls near Green Forest, Arkansas.
Here is part of the story: “Exactly at midnight the two girls sat down
and bowed their heads. The door opened very slowly, and in came a
big man walking backwards* clad only in a short undershirt. Ap-
proaching the table he bent forward, took his enormous tool in hand,
and thrust it backwards between his legs, so that it stuck right out over
the food on the table. One of the girls screamed and fled into the ‘ other
house’ crying ‘Maw, maw, he’s thar! He’s come a long way, an’ he’s
only got one eye!’ ” (Legman 1975:823). Whether or not the prank
actually occurred is immaterial in the present context. What is
important is that a narrative collected in 1 946 refers to a phallus as a
one-eyed man. ~
"'Even more striking is the widespread joke reported from both
America and Europe in which fleas conceal themselves next day to
compare notes. The flea who spent the night in the vagina reports that
a b ald-h eaded, and in some versions a one-eved. man e ntered and spat
.Qn him (Legm an 1 968:585-586). This is not only another instance of
the phallus d escribed as one-eyed, it also exemplifies the equivalence
,pf sp itting a nd e j aculati on.
If a healthy eye,' that is, a phallus, can. spit. or ejacul ate, then an
unhealthy one cannot. Given this logic, it is not impossible to imagine
*ffiata larger, more powerful eye may rob a given eye of its ability to
I produce liquid, or of the precious liquid itself. Thejdeathat an evil eye
absorbs or suc ks up liquid as opposed to a good ey e, wh ich emits
liquid, is paralleled by an analogous folk belief attached to snakes aricT
serpents. La Barre in his insightful discussion of the phallic symbol-
ism of serpents observes that snakes are commonly endowed with
such body image features as feathers or hair, despite the fact that “no
snake in the world has either hair or feathers” ( 1 962:61). Snakes are
also believed to be able to suckle human breasts and to drink milk (La
Barre 1962:94; cf. Aarne- Thompson ta le type 28 5, The Child and th e
Snake, in wh ich- a - sna ke d rin k s-foo mthe child’ s milk b ottle). The point
is that phalluses in the form of snakes or evil eves are thoug ht to have
the power, of. stealing jireciou s liquids.
If the phallus is the “one-eyed,” then it is at least reasonable to
speculate that one-eyed objects or persons in folklore might have
.phaIli£_connotations. The tale of Polyphemus (cf Aarne-Thompson
tale type 1 137, The Ogre Blinded) might be examined in these terms.
Odysseus makes his escape by thrusting a burning mass into the
giant’s single eye. It may be of interest that one reported technique for
removing the threat of an evil eye is to “blind the eye” ( Westermarck
1926:1:434—35; Stillman 1970:90), while another entails a “sym-
bolic burning of the eye” (Stillman 1970:85), which would be an
extreme form of desiccating it. Analogous perhaps to the rationale of
cremation discussed earlier, this technique would remove all liquid
from the hostile eye.
With respect to Polyphemus, Comhaire (1958:26) remarks that
while Homer consistently speaks of the one eye of the Cyclops, he
does mention eyebrows in the plural. This suggests that the eye may
be a nonliteral or symbolic one. As early as 1913, Reitler suggested
that the eye of Polyphemus represented the father’s phallus and that
Odysseus’s blinding of Cyclops represented a son’s castration of his
father (cf. Glenn 1978:151-52). Reitler’ s Freudian discussion began
with a consideration of a curious Austrian folk t o y. Ilisalittl&wnoden
Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye
man. When his head is pushed down, a potent phallus emerges from
under his clothing. Not only does this toy equate th e head wit h th e.
jphallu s, but the h e ad of the toy has three eyes. Besides the usual two, a
third one appears above Them right in the middle of the forehead.
Reitler assumes .the third eve .represent s, the phallus 11913:1611.
In folk tradition, the eye of the one-eyed giant is centered (cf. motif
F5 3 1.1. 1.1, Giant with one eye in middle of forehead). Onians
presents much evidence to show th at the head is the male gen i tal orga n
dis placed u pward ( 1 951:1 09-10, 234, n.6). If the head can represent
the male genital organ, and if the phallus is perceived as a single eye,
then it would be perfectly appropriate for the eye to be centrally
located. One must remember, after all, that single eyes situated in the
middle^of ibreheads do not occur in natureTWe are dealing with
fantasy. The importance of the middle oTtHe forehead is also signalled
by the idea in Lebanese-American custom that a counteractant blue
bead ( against the evil eye) “to be truly effective shou ld s uspend from
ffiejforehea d to lie betw een the child’s eyes” (Naff 1965:49). The
l ocatio n-ofthe third eye in the middl e of the f orehea d is also paralleled
by the efficacy of the middle finger, th e so-calle d digitus infami s or
digitus impudicus (Seligmann 1910:2:183-84), in wardin g off or
curmgfhe ill effects of the evil eye. Typically, spittle is placed on the
rni33Ie“finger aniTapplieB tolEe infant’s forehead (Napier 1879:35).
The phallus is often considered to be a third leg placed obviously in
the mi ^^hg tWeeirthe two regular legs.
'^'"The equivalence of eye and phallus may be suggested in ancient
Egyptian mythology when Horns battles Set. Set tears out one of
Homs’ s eyes and Horns counters by tearing off one of Set’s testicles.
In this connection, it is interesting that the Eye of Homs presented to
the deceased in Egyptian funeral ritual is said to be the one devoured
by Set, who later vomited itup(Budge 1909:134-135,255); andeven
more significantly, the deceased is told, “The Eye of Homs has been
presented unto thee and it shall not be cut off from him by thee”
(Budge 1909:128, 245). In a variant text, “The Eye of Homs hath
been presented unto thee, and it shall not be cut off from thee” (Budge
In Irish mythology, we find B alor^ a famous robber, who had an
eye in the middle of his fo rehead ( K rappe 1927:1-43). Interestingly
enough, B alofTw a s an evil eye a nd he used it to steal a wonder cow.
The use o f* an evil eye to steal cattle is, of course, very much a part of
the evil eye complex in the Celtic world and elsewhere. The evil Balor
is eventually slain by his grandson Lug who, as prophesied, “thrust a
red-hot bar into Balor’ s evil eye and through his skull so that it came
out on the other side” (Krappe 1 927:4). The antiquity of this notion of
a male third eye is suggested by its possible occurrence in Sumer,
where EnkiLEaLalfe gedly bor e.the-£pithet “Nun-igi-ku, the god with
the gleaming ey e.” Reportedly this was described as “the god with the
holy eye in his forehead” (Van Buren 1955:164, 169). In Indie
mythology, Siva has a third eye . In light of the hypothetical phallic
association of the eye in the forehead, it is of more than passing
interest that Siva’s cult consisted largely of the worship of his phallus
(O’Flaherty 1975:137)7 1 he thircfeye of Siva has beerTinterpretedln
an erotic sense (O’Flaherty 1969).
I should like to suggest a logical, albeit magical, paradigm that also
supports the idea that there is a phallic component of the evil eye. The
paradigm is based upon the principle of homeopathic magic, in which
a form of a dangerous object is itself used as a prophylactic
counteragent. In Turkey and surrounding areas, for example, blue
eyes are considered to be dangerous, perhaps evil eyes ( Westermarck;
1^2^Tl7440) Xawsorr ~( 1910:9), who had Blue e yes, reported how
difficult this„in^id&..the .conduct of fieldwork in Greece. He was often
taken aback at having his ordinary salutation, “Health to you,”
answered only by the sign of the cross. Yetthecolor blue in the Near
East js also regar ded as protective against the evil eye ( Westermirck
T92b: 1 :440; Lawson 1 9 1 0: 1 2-1 3). The “likejj gainst like” principle
also applie s to eyes themselves. Eye amulets are commonly used
(Westermarck 1926:17459; Elworthy 1958:133). Bonner has noted
that “the commonest of all amulets to ward off the evil eye consists of
an apotropaic design which has been found on numerous monuments,
and which, though subject to slight variations, remains the same
through several centuries. It represents the eye, wide open, subjected
to various injuries and assailed by a variety of animals, birds and
reptiles” (Bonner 1950:97, cf. 211). The technical name of this
design, Bonner discovers, is reported in a passage in the Testament of
Solomon , an important source for the study of demonology dating
perhaps from early in the third century (McCown 1922:108). In this
passage, each of the thirty-six decans, or segments, of the zodiac is
required to tell the king his name, his power, and the means of
guarding against him. The thirty-fifth says, “My name is Rhyx
Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye
Phtheneoth. I cast the glance of evil at every man. My power is
annulled by the graven image of the much suffering eye.” Conybeare’s
translation of the relevant passage ( 1 899:38) is “The thirty-fifth said:
‘I am called Phthenoth. I cast the evil eye on every man. Therefore,
the eye much- suffering, if it be drawn, frustrates me.’ ”
The paradigm then can be sketched as follows. The color blue
causes the evil eye but the color blue is used on amulets to ward off the
evil eye. An eye cau ses the evil evehut an image of an eyp is; ii kpH to
wanLof f tfie evil eveT rTdw^mething. that is, something analogousTo
an algebraic unknownTgangesThe evil eve, but a n amulet or gesture
r epresen ting a phallus or vulva wards off the evil eyeTIfouFparadigm
is valid and'^rfS2SoSffi^ of the “causes” of the
evil eye must be the phallus or vulva. ""
TheHprs^h oe~a^nd cresc ent moon — charms of both shapes are
used to ward off the evil eye — co uld repres ent th e female genitals. The
symbolic-sq^ and female genitals is substantiated by a
well-known pretended obscerfe ficfdle:7rversibn recounted by Bessie
Jones of Georgia to enliven a discussion workshop at a folk festival in
Berkeley, California, in 1963, is representative: “Whafs round and
hair„all-around itandjiQ^ but water comes out?” The answer is
(Cf. riddles 1 425 ,1 4267 and T443-447^Hair Above,
Hair Below” in Taylor 1951.) The yulva-a&.ni alefic ent object would
also explain Frachtenberg’s observation that “the glanceTiFtHe eye of
a . w o m a n dLuriugLerme p er iod was exte mely dr eaded by the
Zoroastrians” (1918:421). Clearly, a woman w ho was Insiriphinod , a
lifeiljLiid,would xepresentathreatto the life fluids possessed byothers
(potential victims of the evil eye). According - to a limited-good
worldview, tfie loss of ipe nstrual blood would require m aking up the
liq uid deficit — at someone el se’s exp ense.
The association between the eye and the genital areas may also
explain the curious belief that tpou, much- c oital activi ty (Meerloo
197 1 :54)jor ;exce^sive.masturba^on ^wjUlead to b lindn essJVlasturba-
tory ejaculation causes a loss of liquid and the eye would reflect this
by dimming with each successive loss. Gifford ( 1 958: 1 66) reminds us
of Francis Bacon’s no te that the ancient authorities believed “much
Use_ofVenys-dott dimjhe^ight.” Bacon was puzzled that eunuchs
were also dim-sighted but if their organs could not produce semen,
then this lack of liquid life force might be responsible for poor vision —
at least according to the folk theory. The logic is remarkably
consistent. If theJoss-of tig irid -causes blindness, thenjthe addition of
liquid can cure blindness. Urine, forexample (cf. the trade name of a~
solution to refresh eyes: Murinel), was commonly used to cure the
effects of the evil eye as well as for eye diseases generally (Gifford
1958:66). Mother’s milk is as effective a form, of eye medicine as
liquid from a male source. Numerous reports relate that “a few drops
of mothePs milk" directly from the breast is also a favorite remedy for
inflamed eyes” (Gordon 1937:313). “If a few drops of his mother’s
milk are poured into his eyes, the child will have good eyesight” reads
a typical Hungarian superstition (Roheim 1952:353). Urine and
mother’s milk are evidently effective male and female curative fluids.
Xtie phall us or t he vulva as a liquid- seeking evil eye wouldexplain
why the evil eye is singular. But it may not be entirely clear jjdaxjL.
phallus or a vulva should be perceived as liquid-seeking. To under-
stand this, it is necessary to consider an important folk theory of
sexuality, namely, that coitu sis. dangerous and debilitating insofar as
it may result in a loss of liquid. Legman refers to the fantasy tKaC*
‘ ‘"sBiniaTThtef cou r s e is ‘weakening’ to the man, but not to the woman,
because he ‘loses’ a fluid, the semen, which she receives” (1975:651)7
Legman relates this fantasy to the notion of the succubus. Earlier
Ernest Jones ( 1 95 1 b: 1 20) had suggested that “the simple idea of the
vital fluid being withdrawn through an exhausting love embrace” was
related to the vampire belief. Jones also (195 lb: 179) cited the
fascinating folk belief that the deyil has^-nQ^semen and that “he can
impregnate, .a woman only-byJmving first obtWed some semen by
a cting as a Succubus to a man.” The crucial point with respecTto the
evil eye complex is that it is not farfetched to claim that the eye as^
phallus or vulva poses a threat to the victim’s vital fluids. The
widespread idea that hunters should refrain from sexual intercourse
just before a hunt (or warriors before a battle or athletes before a
game) is very likely related to the notion that a man has a finite amount
of energy and this energy might be siphoned off or drained by the
female genitals. The empirically observable fact that a man can
manage only a limited or finite number of erections, hence sexual acts,
within a given period of time while a woman, at least in theory (and
fantasy — cf. Legman 1968:356-60 for the “unsatisfiable female”),
can indulge in an infinite number of sexual acts might account for the
idea that males have “limited good” with respect to semen.
Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye
In like manner, the Arab pr actice of Imsak, the special art of
dglayjngj- he male orgasm ( Nefzawi 1 963:30), is probably selfishly
intended to decrease the loss of precious semen rather than altruisti-
cally increasing the sexual pleasure of females. The idea that “women
emit a special fluid at orgasm similar to the semen in men,” which
Legman calls a superstition “once almost universally believed at the
folk level” ( 1 968:403), would encourage such a practice. If the male
succeeded in drawing fluid from the female genital while at the same
time retaining his own fluid, he would presumably suffer no diminu-
tion in the finite amount of his life force. The fact that most males are
unable to prevent ejaculation no doubt accounts for the widespread
fear of female demons who threaten to suck a male victim dry in one
way or another (cf. Legman 1975:134).
This battle of the sexes f or precious li quid of life is quite explicit in
Chines(r”SCXlTal"' thetJfjTTn this "theory, fEe*“T5H^Yin distinction
includes a male-female component. According to one authority, the
Chinese believed that “while man’s semen is strictly limited in
quantity, woman is an inexhaustible receptacle of Yin essence”
(Weakland 1956:241). Men were supposed to retain their semen
insofar as possible and to use the sexual act as a means of “absorbing
the woman’s Yin essence.” According to the folk theory, “this art of
sgx.ua! intercourse with a woman consists of restr aining oneself so as
no! to eiaoil^ihiiSLmaking one’s^semen returnand i stre ngthen on e’s
^raiiC (Weakland 1956:240). Since men wanted children (especially
sons), they were “supposed to ejaculate only on those days when the
woman was most likely to conceive ... On all other days the man was
to strive to let the woman reach orgasm without himself emitting
semen. In this way the man would benefit by every coitus because the
Yin essence of the woman, at its apex during the orgasm, strengthens
Jlis vital power.. .” T he goal is a bsolutely clear. Manwas to retain his
vital- essence while drawingJthe ^sseoce, frqm his female sexual
partner. In Chinese folklore, one finds dangerous, beautiful women
who delight in draining their male sexual victims dry (Weakland
1956:241-42). While the evil eye was reported “to be no less
common amongst the native population of northern China than it was
and still is in Europe” (Dennys 1876:49), it seems to be largely absent
from China (cf. Seligmann 1910:1 :43). But even though the evil eye
complex is not a major element in the Chinese folk belief system, the
Chinese perception of coitus in terms of gaining or losing sexual fluids
seems to be paralleled by similar folk theories among Indo-European
and Semitic peoples.
In Uttar Pradesh in northern India, it is believed (Mintum and
Hitchcock 1966:74) that excessive sexual activity may cause minor
illness and that “sexual intercourse is thought to make men in
particular weak and susceptible to disease because the , loss of one
dropof semen is c onsidere d the equivalent of the loss of 40 drops of
ftlood.” Moreover, “the longevity of several men is attriEuted to
complete abstinence in their later years.” Clearly the loss of vital
fluids through ejaculation is believed to diminish a finite supply of life
energy. An Andalusian expression (collected in Andalusia by my
colleague Stanley B rand es in 1 976) confirms that the same reasoning
is traditional in Spain: “ Sicjuieres llegar a viejo, guarda la leche en el
pellejo.” “If you want to reach old age, keep your semen within your
Essentially the same folk idea is described in Kinsey’s Sexual
Behavior in the Human Male.
“For many centuries, men have wanted to know whether early
involvement in sexual activity, or high frequency of early
activity, would reduce one’s capacities in later life. It has been
suggested that the duration of one’s sexual life is definitely
limited, and that ultimate high capacity and long-lived per-
formance depend upon the conservation of one’s sexual powers
in earlier years. The individual’s ability to function sexually has
been conceived as a finite quantity which is fairly limited and
ultimately exhaustible. One can use up those capacities by
frequent activity in his youth, or preserve his wealth for the
fulfillment of the later obligations and privileges of marriage”
(Kinsey, Pomeroy, and Martin 1948:297).
Kinsey goes on to remark that medical practitioners have sometimes
claimed that infertility and erectal impotence were the results of the
wastage of sperm through excessive sexual activity in youth and that
Boy Scout manuals for decades informed countless youths “that in
order ‘ to be prepared’ one must conserve one’ s virility by avoiding any
wastage of vital fluids in boyhood,” which presumably was an attempt
to appeal to self-interest to curb self- abuse, the common euphemism
for masturbation. That a Roman’s genital area Js perceived as a
d angero uamouth posing a threat to the inale genitals is confirmed not
Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye
only by the vagina denta ta motif (F547.1.1) but perhaps also by the
use of the Lhtm labia for the outer and inner folds of skin and mucous
membrane of the vulva. Labia, of course, means “lips” (cf. La Barre
1962:89n) and Jbpsudriak up liqui d.,.
In the content of the evil eye belief complex, I suggest tha t showing
the phallus or making the(fi c& ges ture ( which symbolically shows a
phallus m^vag^ aJ^HiTms Uie prospective victim’s ability to produce
semen. The ability to produce a liquid is explicit in a curious detail in
Lebanese-American custom. An exorcist who specialized in combat-
ting the effects of the evil eye maintained that a child was not cured
until he had urinated. She insisted that “no one should kiss a child
while he is being read over and not until he has urinated after the eye
has been expelled.” Asked why this was necessary, she replied, “It’s
just natural. That’s the way it is supposed to be” (Naff 1965:50).
F rom the present perspective, the child’ s cure from the ill effects of the
evil eye is demonstrated by his ability to make water, to produce liquid
normally. (This would also be consonant with the fact that urine is
sometimes reported to be an effective agent in curing the effects
caused by the evil eye [cf. Pitre 1889:245; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett
and Lenowitz 1973:73].) It is, in sum, entirely consonant with the
There is yet another way of blinding the evil eye and that is by
jtefeCating hpo n it. An unusual marble bas-relief reported by Millin-
gen in hispapeTdelivered in 1 8 1 8 shows a man lifting his clothing to
allow his bare buttocks to sit upon a large eye, which is also being
attacked by a host of animals (cf. Elworthy 1958:138-41; Deonna
1955:93-94; 1965:180). This belongs to the same tradition as the
painting unearthed at Pompeii next to a latrine, in which a man squats
in a defecating position between two upright serpents next to a woman
whose feet are pierced by a sword. Above the squatting man is
inscribed Cacator ca ve malum (Magaldi 1931:97; cf. Deonna
1955:94). Seligmann (1910:1:302-3) notes that excrement is some-
times used to counteract the effects of the evil eye, e. g., in the case of a
cow whose milk has gone dry, but he does not attempt to explain why
excrement should be so used. Roheim (1955:28-31) suggests that
“the magical value of excrement is based on the infantile anal birth
theory” in which very young children equate the act of defecation with
the act of giving birth. Thus, according to Roheim, “The defecating
child is the mother; the excrement, the child.” Roheim remarks that
in Scotland, a calf can be protected against the evil eye if some of its
mother’ s dung is put into its mouth ( 1955:25); and he interprets this as
meaningthe witch cannot“eat” the child with her evil eye because the
child is eating the witch (bad mother, excrement). Says Roheim, “To
possess the evil eye means to have oral aggression or a desire to eat the
child” (1955:7). If the production of feces is equivalent to giving birth
to a child, then defecation could be construed as an alternate means of
proving one’s fertility. But like spitting, the act of defecation can also
have an insulting aspect. Defecating on the evil eye could also be a
means of repudiating and defiling it. If the eye were that of an all-
powerful and ever- watchful parent or all-seeing god, then a child (or
an adult considering himself a child vis-a-vis his parents or a deity)
might take pleasure in depositing feces in or on that eye (cf. Jones
1 95 1 b: 1 76).
Deonna (1965:183) reminds us of a formula employed in Asia
Minor by a mother attempting to keep the evil eye away from her
child. The mother addresses the possible possessor of the evil eye as
follows: “Q ue ton oeil soit derriere de mon enfant.” Deonna
wonders if wishing that the eye be positioned at the'chitd’s rear might
be related to the curious custom of painting an eye at the bottom of
cbanibeiLqjpts sold at fairs. Such“cHamber"pbts are repoffecf in
England, Scotland, and France, among other places, where they are
commonly used in wedding customs (Monger 1975). In Stockport,
Cheshire, a premarriage ceremony includes the groom’s friends
presenting him with a chamber pot. It is decorated with the names of
the bride and groom and a large eye is painted on the bottom of it with
the words “I can see yo u” (Monger 1 975:52). Later the man and his
friends take the pot to a tavern and everyone drinks from it. In
Scotland, a chamber pot filled with salt was given as a wedding
present to the groom. Miniature chamber pots were sold at the
Aberdeen market in the mid 1930s “usually inscribed with the words
‘For me and my girl’ or with an eye at the bottom” (Monger 1 975:56—
Van Gennep (1932:1:161-162) reported French versions of the
custom, including one called Saucee (which one is tempted to
translate as “soused” or “wet through”), from Revel-Tourdan in the
Dauphine district, in which melted c h ocola te was poured into a
ch amb erpot with an eye design at the bottom in such a way as to leave
the eye clear. After the chocolate hardened, other ingredients were
Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye
added, such as white wine or champagne, grated chocolate, balls of
chocolate, creams, etc. The concoction was taken later to the nuptial
chamber after the bride and groom were considered to be asleep. The
bride had to drink first, then the groom. Monger ( 1 975:58) suggests a
possible though admittedly highly speculative, connection to a
supposed ancient eye-goddess cult in the Middle East (Crawford).
However, it is more likely that it and the Scottish custom mentioned
above are vestigial fertility rituals. Salt, 3 s Ernest Jones convincingly
demonstrated, is a symbolic substitute for semen (1951a:22-109),
and thus a chafer pbf fffTecT ^ wiTh sairfsT a” container full of semen
given to the groom. Newlyweds are especially concerned with
performing the sexual act satisfactorily. Tourney and Plazak observe
that “the nuptial pair may fear impotence, frigidity and sterility” and
that apotropaic charms are used to demonstrate that the threatened
genitalia are safe (1954:491-92). If the eye at the bottom of the
chamber pot represents the parental or peer group’s attempt to
observe the first connubial act of intercourse (cf. the words “I can see
you”) then the act of pouring in chocolate (a sweet, sublimated
substitute for feces) might be analogous to defecating upon the evil
If the evil eye represents the threat of impotence and/or the lack or
loss of the necessary sexual fluids, then it wo uld make sens e todrink
from an evil eve container. The chamber pot, an obvious receptacle
for the passing of liquid, is converted through ritual reversal into a
drinking go blet allowing for tHelricorporation of a potent liquid. (The
ritual may ali^sfgnaT that a -part of the body hitherto associated
primarily with excretion will be employed in a new and different way.)
In the context of defecating upon the evil eye, it might be worth
conjecturing that the common drinking toast “Here’s mud in your
eye” may stem from the same psychological source. The person who
drinks is incorporating the liquid of life. The liquid is taken at someone
else’s expense. This other person, rather than taking in vital fluid,
receives the end product of digestive incorporation in his eye.
Certainly the above-mentioned wish “May your eye be at the
posterior of my child” is not all that different from “Here’s mud in
In terms of the possible symbolism of body parts, it is conceivable
that t he anus could constitute a m giaph.Qd.ca 1 eye. This is suggested by C "1 ,,
a numbeTof ^standardjoke texts. One traced by Legman back to the
late eighteenth century tells of a man who puts his artificial glass eye
in a glass of water before retiring and swallows it by mistake. He visits
a proctologist who after examining him exclaims, “Fve been looking
up these things for thirty years, but this i s the fi rs t time anyone ever
looked back at m e!’ ’ (Legman 1975:515). Another involves a drunk
who attempts to convince a bartender that he is sober: “Drunk? Hell,
I’m not drunk. I can see. Look at that cat coming in the door there. It’s
got only one eye, hasn’t it?” The bartender replies that the cat has two
eyes, and besides, it is not coming in but going out (Legman
1975:822). In both Ita lian and Spanish, there are metaphorical
reference s to th e anus as an eye. From Liguria in Italy, we have the
following example. A'^Sung prl refused to drink her coffee because
she noticed coffee grounds in it. Her mother asked, “Ti ae puia che o
te o l’euggio de cu?” which might be rendered ‘ ‘Are-yoALafraid thaUL
wili-^tep'uprthe ey.e of your ass?” i.e., cause constipation. Similarly,
ojo means culo in AndaiusTar lff this connection one recalls Chaucer’s
reference at the end of his celebrated Miller’s Tale to duped Absolon
kissing Alison’s “naked ers” with the words “And Absolon hath
kissed hir nether ye.” The nether eye was thus known in the fourteenth
century. ' ~ ""
To the extent that the evil eye has an anal cast, it would be
perfectly reasonable to confront a threatening.aiuis--witlian,al power.
In this light, anlln'usuarSpanish ritual and charm against the evil eye
might be cited (Diego Cuscoy 1 969:502). According to this account,
since individuals who give the evil eye are generally known as such,
one turns a child’s back or an animal’s butt towards them when they
are seen approaching. Then one thinks mentally or recites in a low
voice the following text:
tiene en el culo:
Virate p’al monte
virate p’al mar,
virate el culo
y dejalo andar.
Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye
Three little chick peas
He has in the ass;
Away with two
Turn towards the mountain
Turn towards the sea
Turn your ass
And let it go.
This would seem to be consistent with the Cacator cave malum
pattern noted earlier.
Most folklorists eschew symbolic analysis, and they may there-
fore be skeptical of the analysis of the evil eye proposed in this essay.
But even leaving aside the symbolic considerations, one cannot avoid
the obvious psychological aspects of the evil eye. Sometimes the
possessor of an evil eye used the power for both psychological and
mercenary advantage. In Scotland, fear of the evil eye led people to
bribe or buy off the potential evil eye inflictor (Maclagan 1902:30-
31, 47). One informant reported thaTMrspMacE. “was believed to
have the Evil Eye very strongly, and people would do almost anything
rather than offend her, so general was the impression that she could
injure any person if she wished to do so” (Maclagan 1 902:69). There
are similar accounts from Italy. “I know also a_jnosl4.isagreeable
^inair^hose daily task of running errands is made profltablenby
propitiatory tips, lest she blight her patrons, their children, or their
cattle” (Mather 1910:42). In America (Gordon 1937:219), “one
case in Philadelphia came up before a magistrate recently in which a
dark-haired little old Italian woman was terrorizing the neighborhood.
For many years she had extracted large sums of money from those
who came under the influence of the evil eye. She also sold charms
made out of bones of the dead, articles of ivory, stones, and herbs,
wrapped in rag bags.” These are surely examples of transforming
what might be a liability into a kind of asset.
Occasionally, there have been attempts to put the power of the evil
eye to good use. One of the most unusual of these attempts took place
in Sassari in Sardinia near the end of the last century. According to the
report (Edwardes 1 889:326-27), the evil eye was enlisted to battle a
plague of locusts: “Not long ago, Sassari elected a mayor who openly
scoffed at the priests. This gentleman was not, however, a thorough
type of the modem Sassarese. For though he condemned religion, he
was sufficiently in the thrall of superstition to give his earnest sanction
to the employment of a youth gifted with t he evil eye. The country
happened to be p i agued^wit fri ocusT CTHere was no remedy except the
evil eye. And so t he lad was pe r ambulate d about the di strict, and
bidden to look his fiercest at the insufferable ravagers of vineyards,
gardens, and the rich orchards of the north. Even when the locusts
remained unmoved by this infliction, the mayor’s faith in the remedy
was unchanged. They had requisitioned an ‘evil eye’ of comparative
impotency, that was all. It behooved them, therefore, to find a person
better gifted than the lad they had used.”
Evidently, humans are more likely to be intimidated by the evil
eye than locusts are. In 1 95 7, a committee of the U. S. Senate charged
with investigating possible connections between organized crime and
labor interviewed an Italian racketeer from New York City. The
committee was told that the evil eye had been used to keep unhappy
employees on the job. According to Gifford’s account (1958:103),
the racketeer was hired by one employer simply to come in once or
twice every week or so to glare at the employees. The employer found
that it was enough to have this individual come in and look at the
workers to keep them at their work.
Most of the time, however, the possessor of the evil eye is shunned
and ignored. In Morocco, “A person who is reputed to have an evil
eye ... is not allowed to take part in feasts or gatherings ... he must
not pitch his tent near the tents of others” (Westermarck 1 926:426).
Like accusations of witchcraft, accusations of possessing the evil eye
give social sanction to ostracizing an individual, often transforming
him into a pariah. Pitre (1889:247) is one of the relatively few
scholars to express sympathy for the poor soul who may be
unfortunate enough to be victimized by an accusation of possessing
the evil eye: “Th sjettatore has no name, no friends, nor the possibility
of a social life . . .”
The evil eye, like so many forms of human custom and super-
stition, is condemned automatically by so-called educated members
of Western elite societies. But it should be realized that the evil eye,
like most customs, serves^n invaluah le-proiec tive function. When an
infant becomes ill or dies, there is potentially a great deal of guilt and
shame felt by parents. The evil eye belief complex provides a nearly
Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye
foolproof mechanism that allows the anxious parents to shift the
responsibility and blame for the misfortune upon someone else,
perhaps even a total stranger whose eyes are a different color from the
parents’. Similarly, if a cow’s milk dries up or a favorite fruit tree
withers, it is not the fpdl oi^ the tree: the evil
eye caused these calamities.
Even the diagnostic and protective techniques involved in the evil
eye belief complex may provide important psychological supports. A
small child who feels ill is assured of a great deal of parental attention.
In Italian and Italian-Amerlcan tradition, abowl or shallow dish filled
with water and a drop of olive oil may be placed on his head to
determine whether or not his discomfort has been caused by-the-evii
gye. Whether the child or parents believe in the efficacy of the
procedure or not, most children surely enjoy being the cynosure of all
eyes. Thus whatever evil results from the evil eye, there is also a
beneficial aspect of the belief complex.
The concern in this essay has been not so much with the evil eye
per se, but with the attempt to understand the folk ideas or worldview
principles underlying it. The delineation of the wet-dry opposition and
the idea o f limited good is, however, not jusTanTdle intellectual
exercise. There are applications to be made that may lead to a better
understanding of cultural differences. For example, in the United
States, the idea of limited good is not as common as in the Old World.
Instead, it has been argued that an idea of unlimited good prevails
(Dundes 1971). In theory (as opposed to practice), there is enough
“good” for everyone to have his fair share. One could also argue that
the collective guilt felt by citizens of the United States for their
relatively high standard of living accounts for their attempts to “tip”
less fortunate countries by offering them substantial foreign aid. Just
as many wealthy individuals turn to philanthropy as a means of
salving their consciences (for enjoying the possession of more goods
than they need for simple survival) so the have-nations feel impelled
to help the have-nots by offering grain surpluses and other aid.
But there are some substantive differences. In American culture,
praiseris4iQt only permitted but expected. One can pralse ffiebe auty of
an infant or a friend’ sTnew house or dress without giving offense or
causing anxiety. But Americans need to remember when they travel in
other parts of the Indo-European and Semitic world that praise can be
considered threatening. When a new acquaintance literally gives a
visiting American the shirt off his back (which the American may
have admired), it is not necessarily because of friendship so much as
because of fear of the evil eye. By the same token, Americans, who
from infancy are accustomed to hearing and receiving lavish praise for
even the slightest deed, should not be offended when praise is not
forthcoming from colleagues from cultures in which belief in the evil
eye remains a vital force. One American woman married to an eastern
European told me she had never understood why her in-laws so rarely
praised her or her children. She took it personally, not realizing that
their unwillingness to indulge in the public praising so common among
Americans might have been due to the cultural imperatives demanded
by the evil eye complex. To praise is to invite disaster in evil eye
The contrast bety ^eertAmerican conve nti o ns of socialization and
t hose o f evil eye cultures is quite pronounced. American chirdrerrare
typically asked to perform and show off in front of family and friends
(and sometimes even strangers). Not so in evil eye cultures. The case
of the Syrian and Lebanese Americans is instructive. “Experience
taught that to show off a ‘smart’ child in front of people, especially
strangers, is to invite the eye to strike him” (Naff 1965:49). The same
is reported for northern India: “Because of the belief in the evil eye, a
visitor who followed the American custom of admiring the baby,
praising its unusual healthiness, good looks, or well-kept appearance
would cause panic rather than pride, and a village mother would no
more show off her baby to the admiration of a visitor than an
American mother would deliberately expose an infant to a contagious
disease” (Mintum and Hitchcock 1966:111-12).
F or most of the Indo-European and Semitic world, the philosophy
articulated by Herodotus and Horace prevails with respect to fame
and fortune and the praise thereof. Herodotus in Book VII, chapter
10, of the Persian Wars speaks of lightning striking the tallest trees.
“ See how god with his lightning always smites the bigger animals, and
will not suffer them to wax insolent, while those of a lesser bulk chafe
him not. How likewise his bolts fall ever on the highest houses and the
tallest trees. So plainly does he love to bring down everything that
exalts itself.” Horace says, “It is the mountaintop that the lightning
strikes” ( Odes 2.10). A low profile is essential to avoid the envy of
one’s peers or the gods. Certainly one element of the evil eye complex
is the “fear of success” (Haimowitz and Haimowitz 1966). This is
Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye
analogous to the underdog theme in American culture — politicians
and athletic teams prefer to be the underdog because they ardently
believe that front runners and the favored are likely to be overtaken
and defeated. In the same ode Horace says, “Whoever cultivates the
golden mean avoids both the poverty of a hovel and the envy of a
palace.” This is an ideal — to be neither envied nor envier.
One needs enough liquid to live but that means not too little and
not too much. But eventually the finite amount is depleted. “For dust
thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” If drying is dying, then
death i§ dusLThe American slang idiom “to bite the dust” reflects not
only the convulsive act of a dying man whose mouth may touch the
earth, but also the same wet-dry continuum that I have suggested
underlies the whole evil eye belief complex.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, ideas of the after life include a
solution to the problem of the imagmedJthiisLQ^ For heaven
or paradise or the promised land is one which flows with milk and
honey (Genesis 3:6, Exodus 33:3, Jeremiah 11:5, etc.). The phrase
“and the hills shall flow with milk” (Joel 3:18) strongly suggests that
there may be an infantile prototype for this metaphor, namely, the
initial postnatal breast-feeding constellation. In the idealized afterlife,
one is finally safe from the evil eye. Here there is plenty of milk and
honey — enough for an eternity of replenishment. With unlimited
liquid, one is free to enjoy life eternal. On the other hand, in hell, we
have excessive heat — fire and water are presumably in opposition.
And one thinks of the plight of the unfortunate Tantalus, perpetually
consumed by thirst he is unable to slake because the waters cruelly
recede whenever he bends down to drink.
In conclusion, it seems reasonable to argue that the wet-dry
op posi tion is just as important as t he h ot-cold opposition, wKich has
been frequenlly^sfudledby anthropologists andstudentsof the history
of medicine. Perhaps it is even more important. Classical humoral
pathology in fact included all four distinctions: heat, dryness,
moistness, and cold (cf. Story 1860:697, Lloyd 1964). In this
connection, it is noteworthy that a reported native classification of
foods in northern India included hot, cold, dry, and wet (Mintum and
Hitchcock 1 966:73). If the wet-dry distinction does underlie the evil
eye belief, then the distribution and age of the complex would tend to
suggest that the wet-dry opposition is much older than its articulation
among the ancient Greeks concerned with humoral pathology.
Alan Dundes i
Rather, it would appear that the formulations of humoral pathology
simply formalized a folk theory already in existence. One must keep in
mind that all of the so-called humors were fluids, and for that matter,
the term humor itself comes from the Latin umor, meaning “fluid” or
“moisture.” It is even possible that the idea of an exceptionally dry
sense of humor might imply that the normal state of humor was wet!
Foster (1978) has assumed that the wet-dry distinction has
disappeared in Latin America. He asks, “But why have the moist/dry
qualities disappeared— apparently everywhere— in contemporary
systems?” Foster answers his own question by suggesting that the
moist-dry component so basic to classical humor pathology is less
critical than the hot-cold distinction. “Heat and cold, and not
moistness or dryness, are the primary causes of illness,” argues
Foster, who is, of course, speaking only of conscious articulation of
theories of illness causation. If the wet-dry opposition is related to the
evil eye belief complex (not to mention beliefs about the dead), one
might take issue with the idea that the wet-dry distinction has
disappeared and also with the idea that it is less critical than the hot-
cold dichotomy with respect to folk theories of disease. On the
contrary, I believe there is ample evidence to support the notion that
the opposition between wet and dry is a fundamental folk idea, albeit
an unconscious one, in Indo-European and Semitic worldview, a folk
idea which is, metaphorically at any rate, a matter of life and death.
With respect to the ideal of moderation, I can only hope in closing that
my argument holds water but that my ideas are not all wet. God forbid
that anyone who disagrees with me should give me a withering look, or
tell me to go dry up and blow away.
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